Abstract: Lost and Found: Research on Nazi-Era Looting and Restitution at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Nazi-looted art and masterpieces brought back as the spoils of war frequently make headlines, even featuring in popular culture—from Indiana Jones and his quest for the Lost Ark to the recent feature film The Monuments Men. But what is the reality of tracking down lost, stolen, or smuggled masterpieces?

During World War II, artwork was displaced on an unprecedented scale; it was both destroyed during conflict, and looted by soldiers and civilians alike. Jewish residents of Europe lost their property as the result of racial persecution during the Holocaust, through  plunder by Nazi forces; sales conducted under duress; and being forced by the circumstances of the time to part with their belongings. In these ways paintings, sculptures, and works of decorative art of all kinds changed hands during the 1930s and 1940s. Many made their way onto the art market, and from there, into private homes and onto the walls of art museums around the world.

Through in-depth case studies, this lecture will illustrate how the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) has conducted research on the Nazi-era provenance, or ownership history, of its encyclopedic collection. The lecture will provide a behind-the-scenes look at the process of research and documentation of seizures, thefts, and losses in Europe between 1933 and 1945. It will also explore issues of the restitution of artwork, both in the immediate postwar period and in the present. Finally, the lecture will consider art museum policy and practice today, and how a museum must take steps to ensure that it conducts sufficient research to avoid acquiring a work of art lost or stolen during this critical period in history.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Lynn Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York, 1995).

Jonathan Petropoulos, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany (New York, 2000).

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